Another try for Japanese Gulch protection

MUKILTEO — Supporters of preserving forest land in Japanese Gulch suffered a narrow defeat at the ballot box in November, but already they’re hitting the trail again for their cause.

City Councilwoman Jennifer Gregerson is calling for the council to put a measure on the primary election ballot in August to authorize the City Council to raise taxes toward buying the property.

Mayor Joe Marine was scheduled Tuesday to go before Snohomish County officials to ask for $1.5 million in conservation grant funds.

Some council members have misgivings about going to voters again.

“When does no mean no?” City Councilman Steve Schmalz said.

November’s Proposition 1 received a strong majority of votes but as a tax measure it needed 60 percent to pass. The final tally was 6,219 votes in favor to 4,409 voting no, roughly 59 percent to 41 percent.

“We had the best results of any park ballot issue ever” in the city of Mukilteo, according to Gregerson. “If 59 percent of the city thinks saving the gulch is important, I want to do whatever we can to do that. We should use the tools we have available.”

Those who voted in favor were willing to pay 20 cents per $1,000 of assessed value — $60 per year for the owner of a $300,000 home — for five years, to buy a chunk of property on the west side of the gulch.

The tax measure would have raised $3.2 million toward an estimated $6.5 million needed to buy a 98-acre parcel. It’s currently owned by Metropolitan Creditors Trust, a bankrupt Spokane mortgage company, and zoned for light industry.

The gulch’s trails are popular with hikers and mountain bikers. Boeing and BNSF Railway own most of the rest of the gulch, which straddles Everett and Mukilteo near the Boeing plant.

So far, the city has raised only $500,000 in grant funds to go toward purchasing the property. Even if the measure had passed, the city would have needed more than $3 million in additional funds to buy the property.

In the campaign, supporters said they would continue to pursue grant funds, or that the city could buy as much of the land as it can or even come back to voters for the balance.

That’s one of opponents’ qualms about the plan.

“I think the city needs to do more of an outreach to the public about where it’s going to get the money,” Schmalz said.

Councilman Kevin Stoltz said the city needs to be able to answer the questions, “What are the chances we’re going to get those grants and what are the fallback plans if we don’t get those grants?”

This time, rather than asking for a direct bond measure, Gregerson would like to see a “levy lid lift,” in which voters agree to allow the City Council to raise property taxes by more than the standard 1 percent for the stated purpose. This would require approval by only a majority of voters.

She envisions the plan authorizing roughly the same amount of money as would have been raised by November’s bond measure.

The “lid lift” would give the council the authority to raise the taxes but there would likely be no time limit on taking action, except for the fact that the property could be sold to another party before the city raises the balance of the cash.

“With any of these, eventually the council has to approve it,” Gregerson said.

Schmalz and Stoltz voted along with the rest of the council to send last year’s measure to the ballot, but they’re leaning against doing it again.

“People I’ve talked to are pretty upset about the city thinking about putting it back on the ballot on such short notice,” Schmalz said.

The council has until May to make the decision.

Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; sheets@heraldnet.com.

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